>"[CHURCH] is a VERB" — Sermon for August 15, 2010

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Text:  Matthew 28:16-20 & Luke 10:1-12
Title:  “[CHURCH] Is a VERB”

My first church out of seminary was in __________, Indiana.  There were some good people in that church…really good people.  Some of you know that I’ve talked openly about how that was a hard place to start out in ministry for a couple different reasons.  And, so, when I say “there were some really good people there” you might expect me to follow it with the traditional Southern, “Bless their hearts.”  Sometimes, perhaps stereotypically, Southerners will say something like “Jimmy Ray Miller (bless his heart)…” and then follow it with all the horrible stuff they were going to tell you about Jimmy Ray Miller and the only reason their saying “bless his heart” at all is so they don’t feel bad about talking bad about him.

But there were some really good people in that church.  There really were.  In fact Julie and the kids were able to go visit a few of them when they were down in Indiana…although they attend a different church now.  There were, and I’m sure still ARE, some wonderful people in that church.

But I did come out of that church with some stories that have been instrumental in my understanding of what it means to be a church and what it means to reach out, as I am want to say, “IN CONCERN AND SERVICE FOR THE WORLD.”

I know many of you have heard this story before.  But, you’re going to hear it again.

See, when I got to the church, one of the first Sundays I was there, one of the folks who had been around awhile said, “Preacher, you know what your job is here.”  My ears perked up, thinking this could be pretty important.  He said, “Your job here is to bring in young people…and make sure they’re upwardly mobile.”  In an economically depressed county seat town in Indiana, he wanted me to find the one or two twenty-somethings who were moving up a corporate ladder somewhere and hadn’t moved out of that town and make them members.  It was going to be a challenge to meet that job requirement.

But that comment wasn’t meant to be rude or mean or anything.  It was because the church was hurtin’ for young people in the pews.  Those referred to as “the young women” by the elders of the church were now approaching 60.  And the older ladies were approaching 80.  Most of the kids of those 60 and 80 year old persons had moved away, seeking greener economic pastures.  And the church found almost no one to fill the void.  They weren’t an unfriendly bunch.  They had some studies going on.  There was a lot of experience in the congregation.   That gentleman who gave me my job description was merely putting some words to what, I think, a lot of folks were feeling when they had a 22 year old pastor show up with his young wife to serve a congregation with a lot of graying hair.

While we can have lots of discussions about mission and evangelism and hospitality that this all points to, I want to say that this particular church in ______, Indiana was suffering from BAD GRAMMAR.

See, back in the fifties, after World War II, those returning veterans with their lovely young wives…they were full of energy.  They were planning families.  And they wanted to build a church.  They got together and they worked and they planned and they sacrificed and they built a rather large stone church with a  whole neighborhood around it.

At this time, the church adopted a BEHIVE as their symbol—each worker bee assigned a task in order to raise up a hive…a church…a spiritual home for all of those bees.  It’s no mistake I think that the Freemasons see a beehive as a symbol of industry.  There were a lot of masons among the older members of the church and they were clearly industrious.

Now I’m extrapolating from my own history there as these events took place long before I got there in 1994.  But, I think all of that DOING had one goal…BEING.  There were a group of people who were, by God, going to build and BE the Methodist Church in that neighborhood.  They had young families and they had a facility and the assumption was that persons would be drawn to that place like…well, bees to honey.

And, perhaps it worked for a little while.  The “if you build it, they will come” mentality works well for a while.  The latest new thing always gets a little bit more attention.

But somewhere along the line…they were no longer DOING church.  They merely WERE the church.  All those action words that had described them during their years of construction and growth stopped.  It was all stuff from their PAST.

Their church became a NOUN.  It was a building.  Yes, it was a building where they had friends and had funeral dinners to support the loved ones after a funeral for those who had died in the community.   Yes, they had their Sunday School classes.  And, yes those older women and younger women, who were rapidly increasing in age over the years, supported missionaries far and wide.

But very few people ever set foot in their building, except for Sunday mornings.  For many in the community, it was just that church building over by Lincoln School.  And, by the time I had gotten there, and walked around the community, I found many of the neighbors didn’t even know it was a church.  Because of their need to protect their building…because of a self-satisfaction that comes from being around people just like you that you just really like…because they had gotten undisciplined in their discipleship…they HAD church, all right…but they were failing at DOING church in their community and in the world.

In all fairness, this is way oversimplified.  Factor in an economic depression, an influx of Hispanic workers, and the exodus of young adults from the community and you can see there were other factors involved.  A fifty year history of a midwestern church in a midwestern town can’t be condensed down to a 20 minute sermon illustration without using some very broad strokes.

But it’s clear from my time there, that church was NO LONGER AN ACTION WORD.

Two quick stories that get at this:

First, there was a story about why the boy scouts were no longer able to use the building.  I think I remember it correctly at this time.  Apparently, when meeting up on the third floor…long before I got there since I never saw the third floor used but twice…when meeting up on the third floor, one of the boy scouts started a fire in the garbage can.  I understand that this is behavior you don’t want repeated, but the response of the church was excessive.  They determined that no outside groups were going to use their church, particularly not the Boy Scouts.  And I have no idea how long that had gone on before I got there, but they had a facility that had, easily triple the floor space of our new facility we’re building over there and it was only regularly used Sunday morning for worship and Sunday school, Thursday morning for “[Older] Women’s Bible Study” (and I loved those ladies), and Thursday evening for choir practice…four hours a week.  But they kept it clean and protected it from any fires up on the third floor.

Secondly, and I’ve shared this here, when I got to the church and saw that it was right across the street from Lincoln School, I wanted to know about outreach and ministry with the kids or teachers at the school.  The conversation went something like this:

“So, I notice, we are right across the street from Lincoln School.  So what types of ministries have you all done with the school over the years?”

“What do you mean?

“I mean, have you had any kids clubs or tutoring or have you done something special for the teachers on the first day of school, like a breakfast or something, or brought over gifts at the holidays.”

“No.”

“How long have you been across from the school?”

“Forty years.”

“You mean this church has been sitting directly across the street from an Elementary School for forty years and we’ve never done anything to be in ministry with them or to them?  Well, we should start something!”

“Well, the school is closing down this year.”

And it did.

There was a kid walking home from school right before summer vacation and I was inviting him to the first Vacation Bible School that church had had in years.  I was telling him where it was going to be and pointed to our church which we were standing in front of, and he said he had no idea that it was a church at all.  The church could have evaporated into thin air, right there on the spot, and it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference to him…or perhaps his parents…or perhaps many other folks in that town.  That’s not just sad.  It’s not right.

Many churches, for years, have operated from the ATTRACTIONAL MODEL—meaning churches have felt “if we build it, they will come.”  Churches have felt that all we needed to do was put up pretty signs and have the most awesome praise band and make sure the Yellow Pages (that’s a phone book, kids.  You may not use one), make sure the Yellow Pages listed you as a “FRIENDLY CHURCH.”  And people were going to be ATTRACTED to the church merely because it was the church…it was THERE.  It had persons.  It was a place.  It was a thing.  It was a noun.

And, you know, golly, when you’re working in an environment that is religiously sensitive, where activities revolve around church activities, where persons are being born in the church and raised in the church and married in the church and taught in the church and buried in the church—or nearby it—this just might work for a little while.  Just make the neon sign a little larger than the church next door and you’ll be fine.

But, you know, it just doesn’t work this way.  I know that when I go outside and speak to supporting churches and show them the artist’s rendering of our new facility and show them all the people that are walking in through the front doors I joke that we didn’t have just an artist but a prophet, too…he could see all the people that were going to come to us once we build this place. 

Our shiny new doors aren’t going to reach people for Christ.  And, I’m happy to say, I’M not going to reach people for Christ.  WE ARE.   And to do so, we will need to be sent out through those shiny new doors, to love the people where we are…our neighbors, our coworkers, our teammates.

People will hear the gospel message, they will find comfort in times of trouble, they will have their minds blown by the amazing grace of God, they will find that there are Christians whose company they can enjoy and have fun with…because, instead of an ATTRACTIONAL MODEL of ministry, we have a MISSIONAL model.  We’re not a noun.  We’re a verb.  We’re an action, a ministry, an outreach.  We are a people who do not SIT, we are a people who are SENT.  Amen?

It’s probably about time for a little Bible now.  And, these aren’t hard, friends.

Matthew 28…the Great Commission.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Go.  Baptize.  Teach.  Verbs!

Luke 10:1-12, known as the sending of the 70 (or 72, depending on the manuscript):

He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.  Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.  Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.

Go.  I’m sending you out.  Go be VERBS!

It was said by one of my teachers down in Nashville, that while much of discussion of mission in the church has revolved around Matthew 28, Luke 10 may be closer to what the church needs today.  We’re not looking for vast hordes of Christians to go out and harvest like a swarm of locusts eating crops.  We need folks to do out two by two…into the places where the unchurched people are–as your friends–and eat and stay and be with them…trying to be good witness in their presence and…over time…through relationship share the story of Jesus…or what Jesus means to you.

Look, next week is our CHURCH IS A VERB SUNDAY.  We’re going to be doing service projects in the community again.  But, I don’t want to close out the sermon by just listing them.  I want to give you an illustration about what it looks like when a church starts being a VERB.  It’s an illustration I heard from Rev. Sharma Lewis, a United Methodist District Superintendent from Georgia and thought it was so awesome, I put in on my blog.

There was a church (as often these stories go)….

There was a church in a downtown area of some town somewhere and it might have had some resemblance to that church in Indiana that I had been sent to—not much going on, the community not knowing it was even there, and if it had burned down only the people who were there on Sunday morning would have missed it.

In this “somewhere church” there was fire that broke out on a Sunday evening.  Some trustees of this church were in the area and saw the smoke coming out through the old stained glass windows.  The trustees ran in to the building thinking that they could AT LEAST save a picture of Jesus hanging down in fellowship hall.

Now, this was a pretty traditional picture of Jesus and had been in the congregation, hanging on the same wall of the fellowship hall, for 25 years.  It had been painted around, straightened when it got a little crooked, occasionally dusted.  Persons had eaten many a doughnut and drunk many a cup of coffee at its feet.  Children had run wild.  Youth had held lock ins.  All with little regard to its presence in their midst.  But that was many years before.  Recently it had just been dusted around.

Then the fire came.

Well, those trustees raced into the church, raced downstairs into fellowship hall, and raced on out with the picture of Jesus.

There wasn’t much else that could be saved that day.  Those two trustees, some other members who got the phone call about the fire, and a lot of the people from the neighborhood gathered around and watched the church slowly burn to the ground.  It was a community event.

As they stood there and watched the church burn, they looked at the picture of Jesus in their midst.  It was traditional.  Jesus was a traditional lily-white, gazing up to heaven.  But there was a beauty about him.  Someone noted an irony of “saving Jesus from the fire.”  The trustees got to share why it is that they would run in and save this one thing and why it was important.  Church members got to talk about some of the great, holy, life-changing events that had happened in that little church, even if it had been a long time ago.  And persons, some of whom had been in the community for years, heard about the saving power of this “saved” Jesus for the first time.

We need to be about the business of taking Jesus out onto the streets.  We need to take the message out on the highways and byways…to the neighborhoods and coffee shops and bars and parks and homes and businesses and lives around us.  We CANNOT keep our Jesus confined to our fellowship halls and our libraries and sanctuaries and church offices.  We CANNOT keep our Jesus inside our 30-foot by 30-foot leaky-roofed box of a church or our 126-seat sanctuary church we hope to be in.  We have a world out there that needs to hear about and be transformed by our Jesus.  It may take a spiritual fire to make it happen, but we pray it doesn’t take a physical one.

We need to go and preach and teach and love and serve and work and relate and share and play and heal and love.

Because CHURCH IS A VERB.  We are an ACTION WORD FOR JESUS.  Let’s GO.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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